2021: Year of Catastrophes

In reality, 2021 was the year of Covid, Coup, Climate, Chaos, and of course, China. In short, C for Catastrophe

Breakfast with Bwana

By Anil Madan

As New Year’s Eve approaches, it is time to reflect on time lost, another year lost. With just a little more than a week remaining in 2021 one has to be wary; after all a week is plenty of time for 2021 to visit yet another catastrophe upon a world beset by one too many. But let us be optimistic that we have weathered the worst of 2021 and for now, albeit with great reluctance to relive any of it, look back at 2021.Although one might be tempted to look ahead and venture a prediction or two, let us reserve that for another time.

The usual end-of-year summary of salient events would likely be boring and not worthwhile. After all, there are many, many publications with annual reviews and readers will undoubtedly be bombarded with articles to read. Such summary reviews might include dissections of disparate events such as pestilence as in the horrifying mouse plague in Australia or the lesser cicada invasion in the US; the prolonged volcanic eruption in Las Palmas; the floods in the US, India, Malaysia, Belgium, Germany, and Nepal; wildfires in California, Greece and Siberia; extreme heat in the US west and northwest, and Canada; extreme cold in Texas; tornadoes, hurricanes, cyclones and storms across the US, Japan, the Philippines, India and across Asian nations; coups and hostilities in Myanmar, Sudan, Ethiopia/Tigray, Belarus; threatened hostilities against Ukraine and Taiwan; and, of course, oppression and injustice seemingly everywhere.

The overriding theme of 2021 was, without question, Covid-19. This was the overwhelming and unfathomable story of 2021 as it was of 2020. Every attempt to deal with this menace from stringent lockdowns to lesser controls was doomed to fail. There are still no answers.

Let us leave it there. We don’t need to relive those events. Instead, we would do well to focus on a thematic assessment of what we have learned, or should have learned, how little we know and control and how tenuous the ligaments and tendons that hold civil societies together are.

The year of the Tiger

 The Chinese Zodiac designates each year by reference to an animal. 2021 was the Chinese year of the Ox, and 2022 will be the year of the Tiger. In reality, 2021 was the year of Covid, Coup, Climate, Chaos, and of course, China. In short, C for Catastrophe. Perhaps the Chinese should have designated 2021, the year of Xi. One fears that more than one future year may be the year of Xi.

2021 will probably be marked as the year in which China began to view the US through the rear-view mirror as it tentatively played with the idea of being the most consequential nation in the world.

First, there was the contrast between the attempted coup by Donald Trump in January that eroded America’s standing as the unbreachable Democracy of the world and the Chinese approach. The word “coup” is deliberately chosen. Trump faced impeachment for the assault on the Capitol on that awful day. But charges of incitement to insurrection were a stretch too far given the technicalities inherent in interpreting a criminal charge of incitement of imminent violence.

Nevertheless, it is abundantly clear, indeed beyond cavil, that Trump actively worked with others to try to have himself declared the winner of the election even though he had lost. We cannot know what the US Secret Service or the leadership of the US military establishment might have done if Trump had been successful, but the mere fact that it nearly came to that, left America diminished.

The Chinese approach was one of disregarding the norms and sensibilities of civilized society and intention to prove its assertion that a centrally controlled repressive government that brooks no opposition and has nothing but domination of the world, represents the most workable system for success.

Examples of Beijing’s pressure on those who do not comply abound as we witnessed with the handling of trade between Australia and China and takeovers of ports and infrastructure projects around the world when poorer nations are unable to service debt owed to China for such projects. As the year winds down, we have Intel, an American company, apologizing for complying with U.S. laws against importation of products made with forced labour and under conditions that the U.S. government has labelled a genocide. Intel has 10,000 workers in China making its products. The allegiance of America’s corporate executives to the bottom line is easy for Beijing to exploit as the slightest threat to that bottom line induces compliance.

Second, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan left America further diminished. Perhaps this retrenchment from its role as self-appointed policeman of the world was voluntary and too long in coming, but it too provided sharp contrast to China’s assertion of an ever more aggressive presence around the world, such as in the South China Sea, as a repressive power at home particularly in Hong Kong, and a threatening power looming over Taiwan and South Asian nations. Nor was China deterred from displaying its bullying tactics against Australia or those countries that ran afoul of their debt obligations under the Belt and Roads initiative.

Beyond that, America’s retrenchment underscored the unalterable truth that American involvement in Afghanistan left both countries the poorer for the experience. There are no victors in unwinnable wars. This has actually been a truth about all modern wars. World War II left Germany, Japan, the Soviets, Britain, America, indeed the world, poorer. True, there were great recoveries of most of the economies but that war spilled over into the Cold War and the Korean war.

So it was with the war in Vietnam and the Iraq war, not to mention many other military interventions by the US. The first Gulf War ending with the liberation of Kuwait may be an exception. America came to a reckoning with the trillions of dollars that it has spent in futile adventures, money that might have been well spent in maintaining its own manufacturing capabilities and the welfare of its own citizens.

Transgression against humanity

On the Covid-19 front, significant in the year was that China has still not answered for its transgression against humanity. Whether the virus originated in a lab or was man-made is a subject for another day. But it is unconscionable that there is not even a rudimentary recognition of its obligation to humanity to explore the origins of the virus and what we might do to prevent future pandemics.

Great questions of vaccine inequity are being raised around the world. Whereas it is undoubtedly true that no one is safe until all are safe, it engenders little sympathy that countries that did not commit the resources to developing or producing vaccines should feel free to lament that the world owes them a free supply.

Recent events have shown that the Chinese, and Russian vaccines may not be very effective. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is likewise not preferred over mRNA vaccines. There seems to be a faint hope that the rapid spread of the Omicron variant with its lesser severity might lead to more effective natural or herd immunity.

The worldwide erosion of democracy as seen in America with state after state passing laws that will result in voter suppression, and in Belarus, Tigray, Sudan, Russia, Turkey, Hong Kong, Myanmar, and many other countries leave us wondering if Democracy was but a blip in the highway of human history. Certainly, the world in 2021 exhibited not only the cruelty of Mother Nature but the ruthlessness of man against man and both seemed to work against Democracy.

Withal, the economies of the major nations seemed somewhat resilient despite breakdowns in supply chains and despite stresses in the travel and hospitality industries and despite a prolonged absence of workers from offices.

The erosion of democracy and economic pressures combined, as they always have, to create an immigration and refugee crisis for both the U.S. and Europe. In Europe, the president of Belarus weaponized the refugee crisis against Poland and Lithuania. France and Britain came to loggerheads over control of immigrant and refugee flows across the English Channel. It is an extraordinary feature of modern life that the emergence of tyrants around the world is seen as cause for other nations to provide safe havens for their citizens. Nothing speaks more loudly to the inability of the world to deal with the underlying problem of the tyrant. Some day, will the world’s nations feel obliged to accept a billion refugees from China?

As we look back on 2021, we may well conclude that world is the worse off for America’s decline, China’s ascendancy, and Nature’s conquests over human folly.


* Published in print edition on 24 December 2021

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